The Comrades Marathon (1972 Race Report)

Long before the close of entries for the 1972 race, there was speculation over the "up" winner. No one dared look further than Bagshaw and Levick. Sadly Levick withdrew, and this changed the complexion of the race. Then the entries of the Tipton Harriers from the UK arrived, and these tough, longhaired, pale-faced men came into the reckoning and brought a truly international feel to the race.

They brought with them a hither-to-unknown diet, the depletion diet.

After a long training run to exhaust muscle oxygen stores they went to a high protein diet of meat and eggs for two days and took in no carbohydrates. Then starved of carbohydrates, their muscles would take up and store supernormal amounts of glycogen if a high carbohydrate diet was then followed. This, they reckoned would allow a runner to maintain his best running speed for a longer period.

Tipton Harriers brought a team of seven, financed by club funding, and Mick Orton who had paid his own fare so that he could look after his clubmates. Ron Bently, Tipton captain told Mick that if he was travelling to Durban he had to race, he couldn't miss such a great experience.

Bagshaw was determined to run himself into the history books and he took an early lead. By the time Fields Hill was reached, it was Bagshaw, closely followed by his now familiar shadow, Baker and then the Englishman, Mick Orton. Orton soon took Baker, and running powerfully in the Ballington and Hayward mould, gave chase. At Botha's Hill the dogged Orton caught the flying Bagshaw and drew level.

Shoulder to shoulder they ran to the halfway mark. Would this Englishman burn up in the African sun? The second half of the race would provide that answer. The cruel pull out of Drummond, and the Inchanga bank left the defending champion in distress, and Orton now running with an ease that belied his muscular frame, simply ate up the kilometers.

Umlaas Road, and Mick Orton, the reserve member from Tipton was three minutes clear of an ailing Bagshaw, all that was required now was to keep going and he could win this Natal epic.

At the speed he was running, the record could be in danger. And run Mick Orton did! When he ran the final circuit, waving a Union Jack he crossed the line in a record breaking 5 hrs 48 mins and 57 secs. In so doing, Orton emulated the great Dave Bagshaw's feat of winning, against fierce competition, in record time at his first attempt.

The day ended with the Gunga-Din trophy for the first team, going to the Tipton Harriers, this thanks not only to Orton's fine run but John Malplass ran home in 6th place and Carr in 7th. This was a blow to South African sporting pride, but on that day, as if this was not enough, at Ellis Park the Springboks were engaged in a rugby match against England and they lost 18-9. Truly a great sporting day for the English, and to the chants of England, England, old timers may well have on that day mistaken Marathon day for Empire Day.

Sadly, a few months later, one of the finest ultra distance runners South Africa has ever seen, Dave Bagshaw emigrated back to his native Yorkshire.

Mick Orton's performance in 1972 prompted the club to raise funds and to send him back to South Africa. With Bagshaw out of the race, it was wide open again. Dave Levick was a favorite, as was Alistair Wood, a brilliant, smooth striding Scot. He had all the credentials, for this 40-year-old had handsomely beaten Orton in the '72 London to Brighton and was the first person anywhere to average over 10 miles per hour over such a distance.

The 1973 down run, even without Bagshaw was full of interest and drew a huge field. By the time entries closed, the number was fairly twice the size of the 1970 "up" run. A classic race was on the cards.

From the very start, Orton gave notice of his intentions. By the time the lead bunch ran down Polly Shorts, Wood went into the bushes, and Orton moved ahead.

By the time Orton reached Drummond, he was ahead of the rest of the pack by a full eight minutes, he was intent on burning off the opposition, and he was looking strong. Meantime, further back, Wood had made a few "pit stops" and just before the steep descent to Drummond, was forced to retire with a leg injury.

Dave Levick was biding his time and now started to perk up and he moved up the field using his own wise pacing judgement.

By the time the race leaders reached Botha's Hill Orton was a full 10 minutes ahead of his next rivals. The real interest was here and a titanic struggle was taking place. Levick was beginning to make his move, and by the time he reached Botha's Hill, he overtook the Maritzburg salesman, Gordon Baker, and moved into second place. But the hard down hill running proved too much for the Capetonian, and Baker came back at him by the time they reached Gillits.

Up front, Orton was running well, his powerful legs pumping, he looked a sure winner. At Kloof there were more changes taking place behind the strident Orton. Chris Hoogsteden made a move and much to the surprise of Baker, moved into second position.

At the bottom of Fields Hill, it was Orton, Hoogseteden seven minutes back, with Baker close by, then Levick two minutes adrift of them. Then the cracks began to show. Perhaps it was poor timing, going out too fast, but at the base of Cowies Hill Orton began to falter. Van Hoogstenden and Baker closed, Levick hung back.

Hoogsteden made his challenge on the tiring Orton, and now on the outskirts of Durban the race took on a different complexion. Soon it was the turn of Hoogsteden to falter, and Baker was soon in the lead. Still Levick hung back and bided his time.

Gordon Baker, running his best ever Comrades soon caught the crestfallen Orton, and on Maryville Hill found himself in the lead and his life's ambition right within his grasp, only five kilometers to go, and he was in the lead.

Fate at times can be cruel, for victory on that day would be snatched from Baker. Levick struck and with a ferocious turn of speed, and a steely eye, Levick closed in on an incredulous Baker. Levick, now running the race of his life hauled in on Baker, and to a huge, cheering crowd outside the stadium ran at an unbelievable speed to the finish line. Levick's time was 05:39:09. This 23-year-old engineering student from Cape Town set a new record.

To take nothing away from Gordon Baker, he had a fine run and he finished in 5:42:53. This too was good enough to beat Dave Bagshaw's record. After the race a gallant Baker said, "Orton was looking in poor shape as I went past him. I thought I had the race sewn up, as I was feeling pretty good at that stage. When Levick went past me I had no answer. It would have made no difference if I knew he was coming."

(This article is an extract, reproduced with permission, from the Comrades History here.)